Gerri Brightwell


I recog­nised the tele­phone company’s office by its logo—the same as on the bill in my hand. The glass doors opened onto a wait­ing room where peo­ple fanned them­selves against the heat, heads cocked to sleep, bright plas­tic tokens in their hands. I showed my bill at the counter and was giv­en a token stamped with 11, a yel­low one of all the luck, when that was the one colour I couldn’t remem­ber in Thai. I won­dered: Should I ask for a dif­fer­ent one? Did I have enough Thai even for that? Two peo­ple were stand­ing behind me, press­ing close, and the thought of being the for­eign­er who inex­plic­a­bly refused to take a yel­low token was enough to make me turn away. A mis­take, most likely—I realised that as I took a seat by the win­dow. I’d have to lis­ten for words I didn’t recog­nise in a lan­guage I bare­ly under­stood. What to do except hold the token loose­ly, con­spic­u­ous­ly, and smile if any­one caught my eye?

Outside in the crush­ing bright­ness a school­boy walked past, neat in a white shirt but his hair spiked with sweat. A few motor­bikes zipped towards the main road, then an over­loaded truck that coughed black smoke. Every now and again a clerk called out from a dim door­way and I felt a fizz pan­ic. Had she called eleven? What colour? I tried to trace the sounds of her words, but already some­one would be out of their chair and head­ing towards her.

Soon the bill turned slack and damp in my hand. How Thai writ­ing snagged the eye—here the ear-like curve of an e, there the stiff back and tucked-in waist of a B so that, for a frac­tion of a sec­ond, my brain leapt to make sense of it. But no—the only thing I under­stood was the 537 baht in Western numer­als at the bottom.

Half an hour passed and I took out my book. Bangkok was a place of wait­ing. In gov­ern­ment offices. In traf­fic jams. For friends caught in traf­fic jams. I’d tak­en to car­ry­ing around the thick­est paper­backs I could find: Thackeray, Dickens, the col­lect­ed Sherlock Holmes. How strange to plunge into the nine­teenth cen­tu­ry only to look up and find myself on a bus stopped dead on a ten-lane high­way, to see in the shad­ow of the gar­gan­tu­an blocks of a half-fin­ished express­way work­ers in flip-flops and straw hats mix­ing cement with shov­els. Strangest of all was to find Bangkok not so dif­fer­ent from the world on the page. Here was that rush to trans­form the scale of things from the human to the mas­sive that had gripped the Victorians, the Khmers, the Incas—indeed, who hadn’t it gripped?

That after­noon at the tele­phone com­pa­ny, I couldn’t sink into my book. My head twitched up at the slight­est sound: the door open­ing with a waft of hot, ripe air; the woman oppo­site me whis­per­ing to her neigh­bour; the clerk call­ing out. Eleven red? Is that what she’d said? My turn might come and I’d miss it, might be left sit­ting in the wait­ing room’s wan flu­o­res­cent light until evening came. Already my cot­ton trousers were cling­ing to my legs like a sec­ond skin, and when I lift­ed my fin­gers the pages beneath them buck­led slight­ly. As for the plas­tic token, it felt unpleas­ant­ly warm and greasy where I’d been hold­ing it, and I rubbed it against my trousers.

It was so qui­et, so many peo­ple doz­ing, that I yawned behind my hand. Not sleepy, just dulled. There, the buzz of a motor­bike far away behind the glass; there, the clerk’s voice dip­ping across the room. I caught a shift in the air and looked up. Heads turned towards me. The woman in the chair oppo­site mak­ing a small curl­ing motion with her fin­gers: go, go now.

What had I expect­ed beyond the door­way? Not a store­room stacked to the ceil­ing with shelves of card­board files, and women on wood­en lad­ders run­ning their fin­gers down the spines until they tugged out the ones need­ed below. At a small desk sat a clerk with a meaty face and lac­quered hair. In front of her, a file with my phone num­ber hand-writ­ten on the cov­er. She turned the pages and point­ed with a long pol­ished nail, here, and here. Written in pen I saw each long dis­tance and inter­na­tion­al phone call I’d made. She waved her hand as if say­ing good-bye. I under­stood that she meant No. But no to what? I took out my purse. No. The women on their lad­ders craned to watch us. The clerk said some­thing more. I stood and point­ed to the door­way. No. She got to her feet instead and motioned that I must sit. A moment lat­er she’d gone.

She returned with a young man in a sharp blue suit and slicked-back hair. He spoke English, and I apol­o­gised as he led me to his office—my Thai was poor, I didn’t know where to pay, my land­lord was sup­posed to have tak­en care of the bill. He waved it all away and sat me down beside his desk. How dif­fer­ent this room was: plain and stark, the air crisply cool, a com­put­er in the cor­ner behind him. A few key­strokes and he point­ed to the screen: every­thing OK, he told me. He took the bill from my hand. Not a bill. A receipt. My land­lord had paid. No prob­lem. Everything tak­en care of.


A few months lat­er I went back, I can’t recall why now. But I do remem­ber push­ing open the doors and stand­ing in the sud­den chill of con­di­tioned air, sure I’d made a mis­take: of the wait­ing room noth­ing remained except a short row of plas­tic chairs. A wall must have been knocked down because the store­room had gone and instead, in all that space, stood two cubi­cles where a cou­ple of young women worked away at computers.


Gerri Brightwell is a British writer liv­ing in Alaska with her hus­band and sons. She has two pub­lished nov­els: Cold Country (Duckworth, 2003) and The Dark Lantern (Crown, 2008). Her writ­ing has also appeared in such pub­li­ca­tions as The Guardian (UK), Camera Obscura and Camas. “Translation” is non­fic­tion. She teach­es in the M.F.A. pro­gramme at the University of Alaska, Fairbanks.